This week’s featured woodpecker is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It is one of North America’s four sapsucker species. This sapsucker is the most migratory woodpecker in the world.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are small (7.5-9 inches) with straight bills and a pied facial pattern. Both sexes have a red forehead and white napes. Males have bright red throats, solid black malar (cheek) stripe, a black bib, and pale yellow was on the breast. Females have pale white throats, black malar stripes, and a black bib. Adults of both sexes have black and mottled white bodies with a solid white stripe down their folded wings. Juveniles are a dusky brown with a yellowish belly and gray heads. They also feature a white wing stripe.
Summer (breeding): as far North as eastern Alaska and across the boreal forests of Canada, parts of New England, and Adirondack Mountains. Migration: Midwest United States. Winter: Eastern and Southeastern United States, and goes as far south as Central America (down to Panama) and the Caribbean
deciduous forests, mixed coniferous woodlands, aspen groves, orchards
tree sap, insects, berries, and other fruits. True to their names, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill neatly organized sapwells in horizontal rows. The trees they choose to drill have a higher concentration of sugar in the sap, and are usually sick or wounded. Aspens, Paper birch, sugar maple, and hickory trees are a few of the tree species they drill. They drill throughout the year to keep the sap fresh on both their wintering and breeding grounds. Sometimes they will catch insects in mid-air after perching from a branch, similar to flycatchers.
Males arrive at the breeding territory a week before females to scout out a drumming post. The female and male will scurry around the tree trunk together while tapping a potential excavation site. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are monogamous. Like other woodpeckers, these Sapsuckers are cavity nests. They usually use the same tree for up to 7 years, but will use a different cavity in that tree each year.
Females lay between 5-6 (sometimes 3-7) eggs per year and started incubating around the third or fourth. Males and females will share incubation duties for around 12-13 days. The young fledge 25-29 days after hatching. The parents will teach the young sapsucking skills for around 10 days after leaving the nest.
Quieter during the winter but pretty vocal during breeding. A repeated nasal mewing meehhr!, a quee-ah, queeah! scratchy call. Drumming is typically done by males.
In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers received a bad reputation for damaging and drilling in timber in the Eastern United States. Due to forest clear-cutting numbers declined, but recently have increased and are more widespread. It’s estimated that there is a global population 10 million breeding pairs by the organization Partners in Flight. It’s possible that the population is higher than pre-settlement times. Although more common, they are still consider climate-threatened.
- Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of the three sapsuckers in the varius superspecies. The other two sapsuckers in varius are the Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers. These species have been known to hybridize in certain areas of the west. The fourth North American sapsucker, the Williamson’s, is more genetically different than the other sapsucker superspeices. Studies show they are the most ancestral of the four sapsuckers in the Sphyrapicus genus.
- These sapsuckers make two different holes to access sap. Small round holes are made deep in the trunk, which are used to reach the sap. Rectangular holes that are shallower must be maintained to keep the sap flowing.
- Hummingbirds are attracted to the sapwells that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have become so depend on these sapwells that they will time their spring migration to when the sapsuckers arrive.
- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the logo for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary is names for this species. It was in Sapsucker Woods that Arthur Allen (the Lab’s founder) and artist Lous Agassiz Fuertes discovered the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest in the Finger Lakes area of New York in 1909. Fuertes later named this spot Sapsucker Woods. (story found in the Lab’s publication Living Bird, winter 2015 edition)